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The Oklahoma City boondoggle Judd Legum

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An aerial view of former Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook on June 14, 2012 (Photo by Greg Nelson via Getty Images)

The Oklahoma City Thunder and its fans have made Clayton Bennett and the other owners of the NBA team extraordinarily wealthy. 

Bennett purchased the franchise, then called the Seattle Supersonics, in 2006 for $325 million. He moved the team to Oklahoma City in 2008, where it became one of the NBA’s most compelling franchises. The Thunder drafted two future league MVPs, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, to play alongside superstar Kevin Durant, and the trio made a run to the 2012 NBA Finals. Since 2020, the team has undergone a successful rebuild, acquiring multiple talented young players, including All-Star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, along with a massive stockpile of future draft picks. They are, by some accounts, the NBA team with the brightest future

Today, the Oklahoma City Thunder are worth an estimated $1.875 billion and generate income of about $130 million annually. Those figures are likely to increase after the NBA negotiates a massive new television contract next year, which is projected to be at least twice as lucrative as the current deal. 

For Bennett and the ownership group, however, this isn’t enough. He is demanding massive new subsidies from the taxpayers of Oklahoma City. If the city refuses to pony up, the implicit threat is that Bennett will move the team to a city that will meet his demands. 

Currently, the Thunder play in the Paycom Center, which was built in 2002 at taxpayer expense. When the NBA franchise moved to Oklahoma City in 2008, the city approved over $100 million in improvements, including a “new $3.9 million scoreboard,” upgraded “restaurants, clubs, suites,” and new locker rooms. In 2019, the city approved another $115 million in improvements, adding 70,000 square feet to the facility for “more restaurants, premium ticket amenities and expansion of the top level ‘Loud City’ concourse.” The money would also finance a $10.3 million new practice facility for the team, new seats, and a new scoreboard. 

About $70 million of those improvements were put on hold in 2022 when the Thunder ownership indicated they were no longer interested in renovating the Paycom Center. Now, Bennett and the other owners want a brand new arena. In July, Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt (R) warned that the team could leave if the city didn’t build the new facility. Bennett originally moved the team from Seattle in 2008 after the city rejected similar demands for a new publicly financed arena. 

Previously, Holt said that Thunder ownership had committed to make a “significant financial contribution” to the new arena. Last week, however, plans for a new $900 million arena for the Thunder were finalized. The team contribution would be just $50 million, with taxpayers footing the remainder of the bill. That’s about $3,200 for every Oklahoma City household

Holt claims building the arena would not require imposing new taxes. But that is misleading. The plan calls for a six-year extension of a one-cent per transaction sales tax, which was previously scheduled to expire in 2028. Moreover, the existing sales tax, known as MAPS 4, funds a variety of programs that benefit the city. Initiatives currently financed by the sales tax include

A “permanent location for the Oklahoma County Diversion Hub,” an alternative to incarceration for low-level offenders.

A Family Justice Center, “dedicated to helping survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse.”

“A business support center to help accelerate growth for minority-owned small businesses.”

Bus Rapid Transit for underserved communities.

A new Oklahoma City Animal Shelter.

Crisis centers for mental health, addiction, and affordable housing.

Upgrades of 105 neighborhood and community parks.

Four new youth centers with afterschool and summer programming.

Under the proposal, all of the funding currently backing these projects will be diverted to the Thunder’s new arena. That means Oklahoma City will either have to stop financing these kinds of programs or raise taxes. 

The plan for the new Thunder arena will be formally presented to the Oklahoma City Council on September 26. It requires a majority vote of the nine member council, which includes the mayor, to advance. Some council members are already voicing their concerns. “There are a lot of other things that we can do with that penny that are critical infrastructure needs,” Oklahoma City Councilwoman JoBeth Hamon (D) said. “I think we have a lot of competing needs in this city that regular everyday residents have expressed to me that we prioritize, and none of them include almost $1 billion toward subsidizing a new arena.”

Several other council members, including Republicans Barbara Peck, Todd Stone, Matt Hinkle, and Mark Stonecipher, have been publicly supportive of Holt’s efforts to strike a deal with the team. If approved by the Council, the sales tax extension will need the approval of the majority of Oklahoma City voters in a special election tentatively scheduled for December 12. 

Welfare for multi-millionaires

Several new NBA arenas, including the Golden State Warriors’ $1.4 billion Chase Center and the Los Angeles Clippers’ forthcoming $2 billion Intuit Dome, have been 100% privately financed, a reasonable approach for profitable businesses owned by very wealthy people. Other NBA owners have secured public financing for new facilities. But even compared to these teams, the Thunder deal stands out

The $863 million Little Caesars Arena, home of the Detroit Pistons since 2017, was built with 63% private funds and a 37% public contribution. The $558 million Golden 1 Center, home of the Sacramento Kings since 2016, was built with 51% private funds and a 49% public contribution. The $524 million Fiserv Forum, home of the Milwaukee Bucks since 2018, was built with 33% private funds and a 67% public contribution.

In contrast, at least 94.5% of the cost of the Thunder’s new arena would be paid for by taxpayers. And it could be even more. The arena would cost a minimum of $900 million, but these kinds of projects often go over budget, and any overages would be paid for by the public.

The economics of publicly-financed arenas

Massive public subsidies for popular sports teams are typically justified in terms of the economic impact on the city. The argument is that the expenditures pay for themselves by generating economic growth and tax revenues. The data, however, does not support these claims. 

An analysis of 130 studies of the economic impact of publicly financed sports venues, published in February 2022 in the Journal of Economic Surveys, found “very limited economic impacts of professional sports teams and stadiums.” Even after “non-pecuniary social benefits from quality-of-life externalities and civic pride, welfare improvements from hosting teams tend to fall well short of covering public outlays.” As a result, “large subsidies commonly devoted to constructing professional sports venues are not justified as worthwhile public investments.” 

A report by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis explains that public funds can generate new revenues for a city only if “the funds generate new spending by people from outside the area who otherwise would not have come to town,” or if “the funds cause area residents to spend money locally that would not have been spent there otherwise.” In practice, neither of these situations are common. The report found that tourists who attend sporting events are often “in town on business or are visiting family and would have spent the money on another activity if the sports outlet were not available.” Locals, on the other hand, usually have a finite amount of money to spend on entertainment and divert money from other activities to sporting events. For example, a “family that buys hot dogs, peanuts, and popcorn at the game would have otherwise spent that money at some other local business, perhaps going out to dinner or a movie.”

According to the Michigan Journal of Economics, the economic value of job creation in new stadiums “tends to only go to a few with massive salaries,” like star players and coaches. The rest of the jobs are part-time, low-paying positions to maintain and operate the facility. The money spent on sports venues crowds out “public work projects that have a real multiplier effect like by improving infrastructure.” 

Holt has been claiming that “the direct annual economic impact of the Thunder” is “$600 million and 3,000 jobs.” But he has not released the study behind those numbers, which seem wildly out of sync with similar studies of sports teams. A study commissioned by the State of New York, for example, found that the Buffalo Bills generated $25 million a year in additional tax revenue, with most of the money ($19.5 million) coming from state taxes paid by players and coaches. The tax dollars generated by new stadiums often fall well short of the public costs

Demands for public financing of sports venues are not based on economic reality but, according to the Berkley Economic Review, are a “power play used by these influential teams on local communities that are emotionally attached to sports teams.”

 

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June 15, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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Nero’s Guests Chris Hedges

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I gave this talk in Blackburn, England during a campaign event for my friend Craig Murray who is running for parliament. Like George Galloway, who was recently elected to parliament, Craig’s central campaign issue is the genocide in Gaza. He calls for a permanent ceasefire, the establishment of a full and independent Palestinian state and backs the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against the apartheid state of Israel.

Transcript

Craig Murray: Good evening. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for coming along. I’m Craig Murray. I’m here in Blackburn, as you may know, as a candidate in the general election and one thing I’ve made absolutely plain is that I’m standing here because of the genocide in Gaza. That’s what has brought me here to raise the issue and fight the election here and we’re having a meeting here today which is not like your normal election meeting in that it’s very much focused on that subject and which I hope will give you a lot of information and food for thought and I am extremely proud to have two of the best speakers on the subject in the world, two world leading authorities on the subject who’ve come here to Blackburn.

I had difficulty persuading people today that they are actually here and that it’s not a Zoom meeting or something along those lines. And they’ve both come large distances to be here. And without further ado, because I’m going to be here, as comedians used to say, I’m here all week. I’m here for the next month so you’ll have lots and lots of chances to hear me talk but this is a man who you probably very seldom get to hear talk.

He is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, a man of enormous experience, who’s just flown in from Egypt, where he won the Arab World’s Top Prize for Journalism — and we look very much forward to hearing Chris Hedges.

Chris Hedges: Thank you.

Israel has been poisoned by the psychosis of permanent war. It has been morally bankrupted by the sanctification of victimhood, which it uses to justify an occupation that is even more savage than that of apartheid South Africa. Its ‘democracy’ — which was always exclusively for Jews — has been hijacked by extremists who are pushing the country towards fascism. Human rights campaigners, intellectuals and journalistsIsraeli and Palestinian — are subject to constant state surveillance, arbitrary arrests and government-run smear campaigns. Its educational system, starting in primary school, is an indoctrination machine for the military. And the greed and corruption of its venal political and economic elite have created vast income disparities, a mirror of the decay within America’s democracy, along with a culture of anti-Arab and anti-Black racism.

By the time Israel achieves its decimation of Gaza — Israel is talking about months of warfare that will continue at least until the end of this year — it will have signed its own death sentence. Its facade of civility, its supposed vaunted respect for the rule of law and democracy, its mythical story of the courageous Israeli military and miraculous birth of the Jewish nation – which it successfully sold to its western audiences – will lie in ash heaps. Israel’s social capital will be spent. It will be revealed as the ugly, repressive, hate-filled apartheid regime it always has been, alienating younger generations of American Jews. Its patron, the United States, as new generations come into power, will distance itself from Israel. Its popular support will come from reactionary Zionists and America’s Christianized fascists who see Israel’s domination of ancient Biblical land as a harbinger of the Second Coming and in its subjugation of Arabs a kindred racism and celebration of white supremacy. 

Israel will become synonymous with its victims the way Turks are synonymous with the Armenians, Germans are with the Namibians and later the Jews, and Serbs are with the Bosniaks. Israel’s cultural, artistic, journalistic and intellectual life will be exterminated. Israel will be a stagnant nation where the religious fanatics, bigots and Jewish extremists who have seized power will dominate public discourse. It will join the club of the globe’s most despotic regimes. 

Despotisms can exist long after their past due date. But they are terminal. You don’t have to be a Biblical scholar to see that Israel’s lust for rivers of blood is antithetical to the core values of Judaism. The cynical weaponization of the Holocaust, including branding Palestinians as Nazis, has little efficacy when you carry out a live streamed genocide against 2.3 million people trapped in a concentration camp.

Nations need more than force to survive. They need a mystique. This mystique provides purpose, civility and even nobility to inspire citizens to sacrifice for the nation. The mystique offers hope for the future. It provides meaning. It provides national identity. 

When mystiques implode, when they are exposed as lies, a central foundation of state power collapses. I reported on the death of the communist mystiques in 1989 during the revolutions in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania. The police and the military decided there was nothing left to defend. Israel’s decay will engender the same lassitude and apathy. It will not be able to recruit Indigenous collaborators, such as Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority — reviled by most Palestinians — to do the bidding of the colonizers. 

All Israel has left is escalating savagery, including torture and lethal violence against unarmed civilians, which accelerates the decline. This wholesale violence works in the short term, as it did in the war waged by the French in Algeria, the Dirty War waged by Argentina’s military dictatorship, the British occupation of India, Egypt, Kenya and Northern Ireland and the American occupations of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. But in the long term, it is suicidal.

The genocide in Gaza has turned Hamas’ resistance fighters into heroes in the Global South. Israel may wipe out the Hamas leadership. But the past — and current — assassinations of scores of Palestinian leaders has done little to blunt resistance. The genocide in Gaza has produced a new generation of deeply traumatized and enraged young men and women whose families have been killed and whose communities have been obliterated. They are prepared to take the place of martyred leaders. 

Israel was at war with itself before Oct. 7. Israelis were protesting to prevent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s abolition of judicial independence. Its religious bigots and fanatics, currently in power, had mounted a determined attack on Israeli secularism. Israel’s unity is a negative unity. It is held together by hatred. And even this hatred is not enough to keep protestors from decrying the government’s abandonment of Israeli hostages in Gaza.

Hatred is a dangerous political commodity. The Palestinian “human animals,” when eradicated or subdued, will be replaced by Jewish apostates and traitors. A politics of hatred creates a permanent instability, exploited by those seeking the destruction of civil society.

Israel was far down this road on Oct. 7 when it promulgated a series of discriminatory laws against non-Jews that resemble the racist Nuremberg Laws that disenfranchised Jews in Nazi Germany. The Communities Acceptance Law permits exclusively Jewish settlements to bar applicants for residency on the basis of “suitability to the community’s fundamental outlook.” 

Yeshayahu Leibowitz, whom Isaiah Berlin called “the conscience of Israel,” warned that if Israel did not separate church and state and end the occupation, it would give rise to a corrupt rabbinate that would warp Judaism into a fascistic cult.

“Religious nationalism is to religion what National Socialism was to socialism,” wrote Leibowitz, who died in 1994. He understood that the blind veneration of the military, especially after the 1967 war that captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem, was dangerous. “Our situation will deteriorate to that of a second Vietnam, to a war in constant escalation without prospect of ultimate resolution,” he warned.

He foresaw that, “the Arabs would be the working people and the Jews the administrators, inspectors, officials, and police — mainly secret police. A state ruling a hostile population of 1.5 million to 2 million foreigners would necessarily become a secret-police state, with all that this implies for education, free speech and democratic institutions. The corruption characteristic of every colonial regime would also prevail in the State of Israel. The administration would have to suppress Arab insurgency on the one hand and acquire Arab Quislings on the other. There is also good reason to fear that the Israel Defense Force, which has been until now a people’s army, would, as a result of being transformed into an army of occupation, degenerate, and its commanders, who will have become military governors, resemble their colleagues in other nations.” 

“Israel,” he wrote, “would not deserve to exist, and it will not be worthwhile to preserve it.”

Settler colonial states that endure, including the United States, exterminate the native population through genocide and the spread of new infectious diseases such as smallpox. By 1600 less than a tenth of the indigenous population remained in South, Central and North America. Israel cannot kill on this scale, with nearly 5.5 million Palestinians living under occupation and another nine million in the diaspora. They cannot, as many Israelis wish, wipe them all out. 

Israel’s scorched earth campaign in Gaza means there will be no two-state solution. Apartheid and genocide will define existence for the Palestinians. This presages a long conflict, but one that the Jewish State cannot ultimately win.

Run, the Israelis demand of the Palestinians, run for your lives. Run from Rafah the way you ran from Gaza City, the way you ran from Jabalia, the way you ran from Deir al-Balah, the way you ran from Beit Hanoun, the way you ran from Bani Suheila, the way you ran from Khan Yunis. Run or we will kill you. We will drop GBU-39 bombs on your tent encampments and set them ablaze. We will spray you with bullets from our machine-gun-equipped drones. We will pound you with artillery and tank shells. We will shoot you down with snipers. We will decimate your tents, your refugee camps, your cities and towns, your homes, your schools, your hospitals and your water purification plants. We will rain death from the sky.

Run for your lives. Again and again and again. Pack up the few belongings you have left. Blankets. A couple of pots. Some clothes. We don’t care how exhausted you are, how hungry you are, how terrified you are, how sick you are, how old, or how young you are. Run. Run. Run. And when you run in terror to one part of Gaza, we will make you turn around and run to another. Trapped in a labyrinth of death. Back and forth. Up and down. Side to side. Six. Seven. Eight times. We toy with you like mice in a trap. Then we deport you so you can never return. Or we kill you.

Let the world denounce our genocide. What do we care? The billions in military aid flows unchecked from our American ally. The fighter jets. The artillery shells. The tanks. The bombs. An endless supply. We kill children by the thousands. We kill women and the elderly by the thousands. The sick and injured, without medicine and hospitals die. We poison the water. We cut off the food. We make you starve. We created this hell. We are the masters. Law. Duty. A code of conduct. They do not exist for us.

But first we toy with you. We humiliate you. We terrorize you. We revel in your fear. We are amused by your pathetic attempts to survive. You are not human. You are creatures. Untermensch. We feed our lust for domination. Look at our posts on social media. They have gone viral. One shows soldiers grinning in a Palestinian home with the owners tied up and blindfolded in the background. We loot. Rugs. Cosmetics. Motorbikes. Jewelry. Watches. Cash. Gold. Antiquities. We mock your misery. We cheer your death. We celebrate our religion, our nation, our identity, our superiority, by negating and erasing yours. 

Depravity is moral. Atrocity is heroism. Genocide is redemption.

This is the game of terror played by Israel in Gaza. It was the game played during the Dirty War in Argentina when the military junta “disappeared” 30,000 of its own citizens. The “disappeared” were subjected to torture — who cannot call what is happening to Palestinians in Gaza torture? — and humiliated before they were murdered. It was the game played in the clandestine torture centers and prisons in El Salvador and Iraq. It is what characterized the war in Bosnia in the Serbian concentration camps.

Israeli journalist Yinon Magal on the show “Hapatriotim” on Israel’s Channel 14, joked that Joe Biden’s red line was the killing of 30,000 Palestinians. The singer Kobi Peretz asked if that was the number of dead for a day. The audience erupted in applause and laughter.

We know Israel’s intent. Annihilate the Palestinians the same way the United States annihilated Native Americans, the Australians annihilated the First Nations peoples, the Germans annihilated the Herero in Namibia, the Turks annihilated Armenians and the Nazis annihilated the Jews. The specifics are different. The goal is the same. Erasure. 

We cannot plead ignorance. 

But it is easier to pretend. Pretend Israel will allow humanitarian aid. Pretend there will be a permanent ceasefire. Pretend Palestinians will return to their destroyed homes in Gaza. Pretend Gaza will be rebuilt — the hospitals, the universities, the mosques, the housing. Pretend the Palestinian Authority will administer Gaza. Pretend there will be a two-state solution. Pretend there is no genocide.

The vaunted democratic values, morality and respect for human rights, claimed by Israel and the United States, has always been a lie. The real credo is this – we have everything and if you try and take it away from us we will kill you. People of color, especially when they are poor and vulnerable, do not count. The hopes, dreams, dignity and aspirations for freedom of those outside the empire are worthless. Global domination will be sustained through racialized violence

This lie — that the American empire is predicated on democracy and liberty — is one the Palestinians, and those in the Global South, as well as Native Americans and Black and Brown Americans, not to mention those who live in the Middle East, have known for decades. But it is a lie that still has currency in the United States and Israel, a lie used to justify the unjustifiable.

We do not halt Israel’s genocide because we, as Americans, are Israel, infected with the same white supremacy, and intoxicated by our domination of the globe’s wealth and the power to obliterate others with our advanced weaponry. 

The world outside of the industrialized fortresses in the Global North is acutely aware that the fate of the Palestinians is their fate. As climate change imperils survival, as natural resources, including access to water, diminish, as mass migration becomes an imperative for millions, as agricultural yields decline, as coastal areas are flooded, as droughts and wildfires proliferate, as states fail, as militias and armed resistance movements rise to battle their oppressors along with their proxies, genocide will not be an anomaly. It will be the norm. The earth’s vulnerable and poor, those Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth,” will be the next Palestinians. 

“Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths,” the Roman historian Tacitus wrote of those the emperor Nero singled out for torture and death. “Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”

Sadism by the powerful is the curse of the human condition. It was as prevalent in ancient Rome as it is, 200 miles to the north from us, in Gaza. 

We know the modern face of Nero, who illuminated his opulent garden parties by burning to death captives tied to stakes. That is not in dispute.

But who were Nero’s guests1? Who wandered through the emperor’s grounds as human beings, as in Rafah, were burned alive? How could these guests see, and no doubt hear, such horrendous suffering and witness such appalling torture and be indifferent, even content?

There is nothing hidden about this genocide. Over 147 courageous Palestinian journalists have been murdered by the Israelis because they have conveyed the images and stories of this slaughter to the world, martyred for their people, for us.

We are Nero’s guests. 

The Palestinians have long been betrayed, not only by us in the global north, but by most of the governments in the Muslim world. We stand passive in the face of the crime of crimes. History will judge Israel for this genocide. But it will also judge us. It will ask why we did not do more, why we did not sever all agreements, all trade deals, all accords, all cooperation with the apartheid state, why we did not halt weapons shipments to Israel, why we did not recall our ambassadors, why when the maritime trade in the Red Sea was disrupted by Yemen an alternative overland route into Israel was set up by Saudi Arabia and Jordan, why we did not do everything in our power to end the slaughter. It will condemn us for not heeding the fundamental lesson of the Holocaust, which is not that Jews are eternal victims, but that when you have the capacity to stop genocide and you do not, you are culpable.

“The opposite of good is not evil,” Samuel Johnson wrote. “The opposite of good is indifference.”

The Palestinian resistance is our resistance. The Palestinian struggle for dignity, freedom and independence is our struggle. The Palestinian cause is our cause. For, as history has also shown, those who were once Nero’s guests soon became Nero’s victims. 

Thank you.

The Chris Hedges Report is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

1

The title and concept of Nero’s Guests comes from a lecture by P. Sainath about the suicides of Indian farmers.

 

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Things Worth Remembering: The Indispensability of Men Douglas Murray

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Camille Paglia in a men’s room. (Photo by Mario Ruiz via Getty Images)

Welcome to Douglas Murray’s column Things Worth Remembering, in which he presents great speeches from famous orators we should commit to heart. To listen to a portion of Camilla Paglia’s speech at the Munk Debate in Canada in 2013, scroll to the end of this piece.

Happy Father’s Day in the United States! I thought that, to celebrate, I would do the obvious thing and highlight a speech by the feminist Camille Paglia.

One of the strangest things that has happened in my lifetime is the emergence of the man as a pathetic figure, or a figure of fun. For the last fifteen years or so, you could see it in every walk of life—nowhere more so than in advertising. 

There are two things you can always predict with 100 percent certainty if a family, any family, is featured in an advertisement. The first is that the family will be biracial. The second is that the man (especially if he is white) will be portrayed as an incompetent or a loser. If the problem is wrestling with the remote control, the children and wife will patiently have to show poor old dad how to work the darn thing. It is a small but significant example of a wider trend, because this is a time in which male role models have been stripped away from the culture. 

We may have the culture of the “strong woman,” which I referred to in my Mother’s Day column. But “strong man” is a phrase now used to denote fear and even loathing. 


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